2055, November 12th
Collapse + 6 years
“Wait,” said Naema. “So you stole an exemplar’s powers?”
“That’s right,” said Josephine. “Remember when I told you about how the queen turns powers into strange drawings? Those are inside those big tablets of theirs. They call them plaques, and all you have to do is hold one.”
“Then why don’t you still have it?”
“Because the Lakiran queen is paranoid.”
Naema, Josephine, and Tan were walking back from their exemplar outing. Tan lingered behind like a teenager embarrassed to be seen with his parents. They were passing through Port Harcourt. The markets swelled with afternoon business. Music played from speakers perched in windows. People danced in the streets. It was almost like the Nigeria Naema remembered as a girl; almost.
Josephine talked as they walked along. “Victoria puts an unbelievable amount of failsafes in her exemplar’s plaques. If those things go more than ten feet away from the exemplar they’re assigned to, they give a warning beep. If they’re not back within range in one minute, tiny explosives inside the plaque destroy those drawings. So if Tan and I want to use those plaques, I have to stay within ten feet of the exemplar.”
“Why don’t you open it and remove the drawings.”
“They’ve thought of that. Trust me. They’ve thought of everything. If it opens, pop. If it loses GPS for too long, pop. If the exemplar goes somewhere he’s not supposed to, pop. The tablets even have a detachable battery that the exemplars are supposed to yank out if they think they’re about to be taken hostage. It kills the powers immediately. And I think the empire can remotely destroy them too if they suspect anything fishy.”
“Why so much?”
“Those tablets were the biggest advantage the Lakirans have over the Chinese and the EDA. Exemplars could pick out spies, sense hidden troops, interrogate prisoners of war. No one else can do that, and the Lakiran’s will hold onto that advantage at any cost. Do you remember how the empire launched this huge assault into Britain?”
“Oh. This was about four years ago. No one understood why the empire came to Europe so early. It really overstretched them. I heard it’s because the European Alliance had managed to get their hands on one of those plaques. The entire early invasion was started just to get it back. I don’t know if it’s true or not, but the empire definitely came to Europe before they had a good handle on North America.”
“Maybe the queen is just greedy.”
“Maybe. Anyway, Tan and I were able to get an exemplar’s plaque from him, but not for very long. It really helped us work on each other’s powers, but we can’t do that for you if you’ll just break anything we bring near you.”
Josephine glanced at her. “You don’t seem very bothered by that.”
Naema shrugged. “I guess I would be if I had mind reading or something. What do I do? Nothing. I break other people around me. Or so you say. I’m still not sure it isn’t all just a big joke you’re pulling.”
“You saw the exemplar.”
“Yeah… I guess so.” Naema saw the exemplar thump his tablet, then Josephine pulled her away. Disregard Tan and Josephine’s word, and there wasn’t any other evidence of her power.
They walked through the market until coming upon dividers blocking the road. Beyond, a Lakiran construction project was underway. An aerial crane floated over a deep pit. It had three prominent bulges along its bottom in a triangular shape which no doubt contained high capacity repulsers. They stayed aloft using the same invisible tripod technique the citadels used.
Cables dangled from the crane. Construction workers guided prebuilt pieces into place upon a structure in the pit. Soldiers stood guard around the site, and spaced around the crane were aerial watchtowers suspended in the same fashion as the crane. In each, a soldier behind a railgun was ready to rain hell upon troublemakers.
“They’re building a grid node,” Josephine said. “Told you. They’re moving in.”
Naema didn’t disagree. Lakirans already had nodes installed throughout Nigeria, but those were the temporary kind, above ground. They’d float the nodes into position, then bolt them down. It allowed the Lakirans to drop in their orbital drop response teams, but not much else. This, though, was higher capacity, a permanent installation placed underground. They couldn’t pack this one up and leave if the Nigerian occupation didn’t pan out. Naema had seen pictures of cities with shuttles cluttering the skyline. This was the first step. Pretty soon, Lakirans responding to trouble would be coming from local stations, not ships coasting the upper atmosphere. That meant faster response times.
“But look on the bright side,” Josephine pointed at one of the watchtowers. An exemplar was gazing over the crowd. “Looks like Tan wins two to zero, and we get to test again.”
“Won’t the Lakirans wonder why two exemplars had trouble today?”
“They might, but it’s too late. Look.” The exemplar was already frowning at his plaque. “It’s definitely broken. Do you want to watch this time? I don’t think we need to be careful. The soldier’s aren’t turning away spectators here.” They watched while the exemplar fiddled his plaque, turning it over as though looking for the on switch.
Tan came up beside them. “We go.”
“Patience,” Josephine said. “This is a better test. Nobody is going to notice us here. Naema, are you convinced yet, or do you still think I’m making your gift up?”
“We go. Now.” Tan sounded more insistent.
“It’s not that late. Just a minute.”
“I have bad feeling.”
The change in Josephine’s demeanor was stark. Glancing around, she took Naema’s arm. “Okay, let’s go.” They worked backward through the crowd. Josephine and Tan kept glancing back as though expecting someone to call them out. Naema glanced, but nothing seemed wrong. Tan’s bad feelings seemed to carry particular weight with Josephine.
Somebody yelled. It was distant and in French. Then came a scream.
Then a gunshot.
Suddenly, everything happened at once. The crowd surged. Everyone yelled and screamed. There was a bout of gunfire. Naema glimpsed someone in a second story window firing a rifle toward the construction project. The Lakiran guards responded with a spray of flechettes from their silent rifles.
Naema lost sight of them as the crowd jostled her. Everyone was trying to run now. Someone crashed into her. Another fell between her and Josephine, causing their linked hands to separate. Josephine’s head snap around to look just as Naema fell. She landed on her broken hand. The pain stole her attention momentarily. When she looked up, Josephine was struggling against the crowd to get to her. Naema rose to one knee.
Suddenly, an explosion.
She was on the ground again. Heat washed over her back. Over the ringing in her ears, gunfire continued. There was blood on her. Panicked, she checked herself over. No injury. It was someone else’s blood. She climbed once again to her knees.
She looked up. Josephine was across the street, laying flat on her belly. The crowd had cleared, and now Naema saw why. There were dead between her and Josephine.
Josephine motioned for her to get down. Naema scrambled for cover behind an overturned cart. All around, the fighting continued. Men with rifles were firing from around corners and behind door frames. More shot at the Lakirans from windows. They were rebels, but whether they were remnants of the European Alliance or some African group, she didn’t know. They were dressed in street clothes which hid them in the crowd.
Three more explosions sounded back to back, and the husk of an aerial watchtower dropped from the sky. From a window, a rocket launched at one of the remaining ones. It’s path was instantaneous, but from the smoke streak, it came within five feet of the tower before the tower’s repulse field arced it away. It crashed into a building. Stone and brick showered the street.
The guard in the tower spun his rail gun toward the window. No projectile shot out, but the building tore apart as though someone had scraped their finger through wet newspaper. Part of the wall fell away. Bloody carnage was inside the exposed room, Body parts tumbled out. Naema knew vaguely what had happened. People called those railguns shears. They generated repulse fields as thin as pencil lead but strong enough to apply thousands of pounds of force.
Another tower turned its railgun toward rebels taking cover behind a brick wall. The bricks chipped, but did not crumble as the plaster wall had. The men behind the wall cleaved apart, like bags of soup spilling open. The field passed through the wall. Naema realized it would do the same for the cart she was hiding behind. She couldn’t stay here.
Josephine was still taking cover across the street. Naema wanted to sprint across to them, but her mind kept envisioning flechettes biting into her guts as soon as she was in view. Her legs wouldn’t move.
Everything changed again. An orbital deployment team arrived. Pods crashed onto the streets, one right before Naema, separating her from Josephine. The sound was like metal thunder. Their hatches blew open, and armored soldiers came out firing. If the rebels had any chance of winning this fight, it was gone. Several dropped immediately. Their cover did not protect them from the assailants suddenly appearing from unexpected directions. They ran. The Lakirans kept firing, shooting rebels and civilians alike. Not even Naema could tell who was who.
The orbital soldier right before her need only glance to his right to see her. She was unarmed, but he might not care. The rebels had been hiding in the crowds, and the Lakirans weren’t taking chances.
He marched down the street in pursuit of someone. No Lakirans were in sight, but neither were Tan and Josephine. Bullets and yelling still sounded, but not near her. Bystanders crawled away from the fighting toward alleys and alcoves. Some got up and sprinted. No one shot them down.
Josephine was gone, but this was Naema’s chance. She crawled toward an alley. As soon as she was out of view, she got up and sprinted. Three steps. She stumbled, tore her knees, and landed poorly on her hands. Pain exploded from her broken thumb, but she got up and kept going.
She raced down the alley and around a turn. Something knocked her down. It was as though she’d run into a dense wall of air which blew her back. She got up and tried again. Again, something pushed her onto her rear. Ahead of her, floating about ten feet in the air, was a small drone—a wall bot. It was generating a repulse field between itself and Naema, sealing the alley. It must have flown in along with the deployment pods to lock the situation down. There would be others too, shutting down the entire area. Naema knew how this worked. Everyone was a suspect. All got dragged away.
She ran back to check the fighting. Gunfire had stopped. Other wall bots were floating into position where the fray had been. Many were already locked in place. Civilians batted uselessly against invisible walls. The fight was over. The Lakirans would start arresting people, her included if they found her.
She looked for an alley the orbs might have missed. One nearby had overflowing dumpsters. Bystanders were hiding for their lives behind them. She paid them no heed and ran to the end, took a turn, and skidded to a stop. A wall bot was already in place at the mouth.
Somewhere distant, there was a burst of rifle fire, followed by an explosion. Nothing followed. Some rebel hadn’t realized the Lakirans had already won. A ship blotted out the sky between the buildings for a moment. It was landing nearby. More soldiers would soon crowd the streets. They’d carry her away unless she escaped, which grew increasingly unlikely.
Would her supposed power protect her? Maybe, but maybe not. She didn’t want to take the chance.
She scanned around. The streets were locked down, but fire escapes might not be. If she got into a building and hid, then maybe the exemplars wouldn’t find her. That’s only if her power would protect her against an exemplar she’d never laid eyes upon.
The bottom of the fire escapes were nine feet above, nothing she could jump, but there were leftover crates from the market. She piled two and carefully climbed on top. The people cowering by the dumpsters paid her no attention. They watched the alley mouth for signs of combat. Teetering on top of the crates, Naema leaped for the fire escape and caught it with her good hand and the fingers of her casted hand. A buried part of her was aware of the crippling pain it caused.
She pulled herself up and hooked her foot over the railing. She’d was nearly on the fire escape when white-clad soldiers appeared at the mouth of the alley.
“Hey,” one yelled. “Freeze.”
She looked to see two peace officers aiming weapons at her. Naema didn’t know what their weapons fired, but she had no doubt they would fire them. She held up one free hand in a gesture of surrender.
“Get down from there,” they yelled.
She unhooked her foot. Once her legs stopped swinging, she dropped onto her hands and knees. Before she could rise, the soldiers shoved her onto her stomach and secured her hands behind her.
They dragged her toward the street. The fighting was over. The area was swarmed with soldiers, some dressed in white for peace, others wore deployment gray. All had weapons. The fetid smell of death and smoke filled the air.
More and more wall bots fell from the sky. When they reached building level, they’d hover into place and generate partitioning fields to further lock down the streets at a greater radius. Others were dedicated to caging herds of frightened civilians.
Naema couldn’t spot Josephine among the crowd. Even if she was, what could she do? No amount of memory wiping would let her pass those repulse barriers.
They set Naema down by others, and a soldier with a control tablet directed wall bots to fence her in. The next ship to arrive was a large hulking craft. Soldiers cleared a place for it to land. It was a transport ship, here for the prisoners. That was going to be her ride to the citadel.